Hard science fiction is one of the hardest genres to write in. Science fiction is hard to start with. Creating a whole universe with consistent rules and interesting world building is difficult. But hard science fiction takes it one step further by introducing real scientific ideas and philosophies into that world. Authors in the genre do not just have to build a compelling universe, they have to think about the science behind their universe and make it in accordance with modern scientific understanding.
Because of that, hard science fiction is one of my favorite genres. Blindsight was recommended to me by a friend who knew that I liked the genre, and I finally got around to reading it. I am glad that I got the recommendation, because Blindsight was one of the most interesting hard science fiction books that I have ever read.
The book tells the story of first contact between aliens and late 21st century humans, many of whom are transhuman, sporting a variety of technological improvements and brain modifications. This creates a big discrepancy between the modified humans and baseline humanity. The narrator, Siri Keaton is missing half his brain. The missing part is replaced by a computer, which allows him to explain the thoughts of the transhumans to the baseline humans.
He is sent on a mission to explore an alien artifact out in the Oort cloud, along with other heavily modified humans. Finding a twisted and growing black spaceship, the crew begins to study the aliens and learns that not only are they completely unlike humanity, the aliens may not even be sentient. I don’t want to go into more detail because spoilers.
Blindsight is not so much a novel about space exploration and space travel. Rather, it is an exploration about what intelligence means and whether sentience is necessary for intelligence. Those are some pretty heavy questions, and Watts does not dumb down his prose for his authors. He expects you to either understand what he is talking about or look it up. If you do not want to make the effort, Blindsight is a miserable experience.
But I was so interested in the story that I made sure to do some outside reading, which was really interesting. I learned all about the Chinese Room though experiment, the biggest questions of the philosophy of the mind, marine biology, and the philosophical zombie thought experiment.
Shockingly, the question of whether sentience is necessary for intelligence is a big one. We always assume that in order for a species to be intelligent, it should also have awareness of the self. But that is not a pre-requisite. Not only do philosophers believe that intelligence is separate characteristic, we are already experiencing this reality. Computers are incredibly intelligent, but they do not have any self-awareness. A computer does not understand the input and output that it operates on, but follows pre-set rules to operate. Intelligence without sentience.
Watts hypothesizes that in the universe, sentience is a pretty rare adaptation. In fact, Watts argues that sentience is pretty useless and eventually will be lost to the human race through natural selection. Our brain wastes a lot of power and energy focusing inwards, worrying about questions of the self and self preservation. If our species were to free up our brains for purely intelligent thought, the human race would leap forwards.
That is hard for us to imagine, since we all are used to existing with sentience. Because of that, Blindsight brings up a lot of interesting questions that are not easy to answer. Even though it feels like a science fiction novel, Blindsight is just as much a philosophy novel. The combination of these two genres made it extremely interesting, and well worth reading.
So if you are looking for a challenging but interesting book, go check out Blindsight. You will not be disappointed.